A Pinoy's guide for planning a trip to the Scottish Highlands
Purple heather-covered hills and mountains cloaked in mist. Legends and songs that seem to have sprung from the very earth. Adventures of the culinary kind: cullen skink, Highland salmon, venison burgers, haggis. And, well, hot guys in kilts talking in the most adorable accents.
Whether you're a foodie, an outdoor enthusiast, a history buff, or a hopeless romantic, the one place you should be adding to your travel bucket list this 2016 is the Scottish Highlands.
How to get there
The Highlands of Scotland – with its glens, bens, lochs and moors – may sound like it's a whole world away, but it's actually surprisingly easy to get there from the Philippines. The shortest, most convenient way is by non-stop flight from Manila to London, then by Caledonian Sleeper train from London to Inverness.
Inverness – pronounced not like "in fairness" but rather with the accent on the last syllable, \ˌin-vər-ˈnes\ – is the capital of the Highlands and the northernmost city of the United Kingdom. "Inver" means "river mouth" in Gaelic and so Inverness sits right on the mouth of the River Ness.
The legendary Loch Ness is just a short drive away, as are many other important historical and cultural landmarks, making Inverness the perfect base to explore the Scottish Highlands. (Read more about Inverness here.)
At the time of writing, only Philippine Airlines offers non-stop flights from Manila to London.
The Caledonian Sleeper leaves London at 9:15 pm and arrives in Inverness at 8:38 am the next day. The compartments in the Caledonian Sleeper are spacious even in standard class, the beds are comfortable, and the train company is so committed to quality service that they offer refunds if you get to your destination late. (Seriously, imagine if our local airlines had that sort of policy.)
Make sure to wake up at around 6 am to catch the breathtaking views from Pitlochry onwards.
If you're interested in going up Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, you can get off the Caledonian Sleeper at Fort William, the largest town in the Highlands, which is only 2 km from the start of Ben Nevis' most popular ascent route.
Alternative ways to get to the Scottish Highlands involve any combination of planes, trains, and/or buses from London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow. If you want, you can even walk to the Highlands – the scenic West Highland Way starts from the edge of Glasgow and ends in Fort William.
What to do in the Highlands
In 1746, Prince Charles Edward Stuart had a price of £30,000 on his head. On the run after the Battle of Culloden, he hid in the Highlands, asking for help, food and protection from so many people, it almost seemed inevitable that one of them would be tempted by the reward and turn him in. But no one did. To put that in perspective, £30,000 then would be worth £3,480,000 today — over P250,000,000 — and yet not one Highlander betrayed him.
On one desperate occasion, as government forces closed in on the Bonnie Prince, one brave lady, Flora MacDonald, disguised him as her maid and took him by boat to the Isle of Skye. It was this courageous act that inspired the Skye Boat Song, an adaptation of which now opens the hit TV show Outlander.
Truly, the history of the Scottish Highlands is full of real-life tales of loyalty and bravery. To get the most out of your trip, make sure you spend at least one day acquainting yourself with the Highlanders' rich cultural and historical heritage. There are many tour operators in the area; I recommend Hame Tours by historian/musician Andrew MacDonald because of his emphasis on Scottish history and culture.
Andrew even wore his clan's traditional plaid kilt as he took us to such places as Culloden Battlefield, Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness, and the Clava Cairns, and in the car he sang the Skye Boat Song for us in a rich, deep voice that gave us a million goosebumps.
Some of the other things you can do while in the Scottish Highlands:
Go to a pub, drink whisky, and listen to Scottish folk music. One afternoon in Inverness, we were walking down the main street when we heard cheering and loud music issuing from a nearby pub.
It turns out a local band was playing a rousing folksy rendition of "Flower of Scotland" and people inside the pub – everyone from teens to young professionals to white-haired seniors – were on their feet, clapping, stomping, dancing, and singing along. People pulled us inside and we got to join the fun.
It was an amazing experience, a delightful glimpse of the Scottish spirit, and one of my most favorite memories of Scotland.
Visit the Isle of Skye. If you've seen Stardust, or Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender, or that viral YouTube video of trials cyclist Danny Macaskill rowing a boat then riding his bike down the most treacherously steep summits of his hometown, then you've gotten a glimpse of the stunningly gorgeous landscapes of Skye.
But there's nothing quite like seeing them with your own eyes: the otherworldly Quiraing mountain range that immediately calls to mind The Lord of the Rings, the flower-dotted Nicolson clan lands that make up the Scorrybreac Circuit, the enchanting fairy pools at the foot of the Black Cuillins.
You can go on a whirlwind tour of Skye in a day but it's best to stay at least one night in this beautiful island. If you go there in winter, there's even a good chance you will see the aurora borealis.
Take the road to Hogwarts. Harry Potter fans who want to know what it's like to ride the Hogwarts Express can do the next best thing: take the scenic train from Fort William to Mallaig and pass over the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct made popular by the Harry Potter films.
Mallaig is a sleepy but charming coastal town from where ferries regularly depart for the Isle of Skye. Another scenic train worth taking is the one from Inverness to Kyle of Localsh, where there are buses that can take you by road bridge to Skye.
How much will it cost?
As with most other destinations, a trip to the Scottish Highlands can be as expensive or – well, not cheap but – as doable as you are willing to make it.
Tips for frugal travelers:
- You can get tasty sandwiches for £1, healthy salads/pasta for £2, and microwaveable rice meals for £4 at supermarkets.
- Dorm beds in the Inverness Youth Hostel cost around P1,300 per person per night. My sister and I stayed with a lovely Scottish couple, both retirees, whose second-floor guest room we booked through Airbnb for around P4,000/night. (Their place was only 5 minutes' walk from the train station and 10-15 minutes' walk to the establishments along the River Ness, so we didn't have to spend anything on local transportation.)
- For good deals on flights, keep an eye on Skyscanner. Fares to London drop periodically below P30,000. That's not exactly cheap but it's definitely doable...and, really, the Scottish Highlands are absolutely worth it.
Before you go
Get a UK visa. The Scottish Highlands are, of course, part of Scotland, which in turn is part of the United Kingdom, so you need to get a UK visa. The application process is fairly simple; the forms, requirements, and instructions are all online.
The visa fee is $133 and if you apply through the VFS office in Cebu, there is a surcharge of $92.
(You can read about how we applied for a UK visa here: Getting a UK Visa in Cebu: What You Need to Know.)
Pack rain gear. “There was a drought in Skye recently,” said our guide once. “It didn’t rain for 6 whole hours.” That joke should tell you what you need to know about how prone the western Highlands and islands are to rain; however, as a Scottish saying goes, “There's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”
Look up the weather forecast for your trip and pack accordingly. If you're planning on doing some trekking, definitely bring a raincoat and waterproof shoes. Also: look up midges and how to survive them.
Read books, listen to music, and watch films set in Scotland. You don't need to know the stories of Scotland to appreciate its breathtaking beauty, but you will feel a greater connection to what you see if you do a bit of research before you go.
You don't even have to open a history book – try reading Neil Gaiman's Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains, Dick Francis' To The Hilt, or even those romance novels involving strapping lairds in kilts and spirited young ladies.
Watch Brave and Braveheart and at least the first few episodes of Outlander. Listen to Dougie Maclean. The Scottish Highlands – its sights, its songs, its stories, its spirit – is a place that is sure to delight your eyes, touch your soul, and fill your heart to bursting. – Rappler.com
Gaya is a travel blogger from Cebu whose background in psychology and medicine has taken a backseat to her passion for writing and traveling. Her main occupation is spamming her friends' Facebook feeds with travel articles she's published in her blog Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains, but for bread and butter she takes on writing and healthcare-related projects from home. Her bucket list includes taking her family to Rome, seeing the northern lights from the Scottish highlands, and walking the Camino de Santiago.